Need some inspirational and helpful hints on working in the animation industry? Check out this fun and informative podcast.
Canadian animation writer/creative producer/story editor David Dias speaks with TV Writer Podcast host Gray Jones in a one–hour interview jammed-packed with tasty tidbits. “All the ins and outs of writing animation for all ages, including many great tips on breaking in, pitching, and getting your idea off the ground. ”
Once again, animated television – the beloved medium which puts roofs over our heads, coffee in our cups, and digital cable programming into our PVRs – has come under attack.
Some researchers from the University of Virginia showed 20 4-year-old kids an episode of Spongebob Squarepants then had them do some tests to measure their “executive function.”
Executive function. Sounds like a cocktail party for a bunch of CEOs, but apparently it’s something happens in your frontal lobes. It comes in handy when you want to learn stuff, keep organized, control your impulses and learn from your mistakes. (If my lobes had better executive function, I probably would not have gone to see Green Lantern this summer.)
Anyway, the Spongbob kids reportedly performed more poorly than the 20 kids who watched an episode of Caillou or the 20 kids who drew pictures instead. This led to the researchers to conclude that fast-cutting quick-paced shows like Spongebob could impede the learning process.
Okay, lots of folks, including a spokesdude from Nickelodeon, have already pointed out the flaws in this study…including the small sample size and the fact that Caillou is a preschool show and Spongebob is aimed at older kids. Or that the study didn’t try leaving a gap between the watching of the programs and taking of the tests.
But what if the results aren’t bogus? What if a study with a larger sample of kids comes up with the same results? What if we, the animation writers, are contributing to the stupidity of children?
The solution to this particular problem seems pretty simple to me. PARENTS OF PRESCHOOLERS: DON’T LET YOUR KIDS WATCH SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS BEFORE THEY TAKE AN EXECUTIVE FUNCTION TEST!
Let’s say some kids shouldn’t watch TV before trying to learn something. (And let’s say I shouldn’t have watched two of episodes of Kick Buttowski on YouTube before writing this post. Think of how more coherent it could’ve been!)
Then let’s say parents should control what shows their kids watch and when they watch them and for how long. After all, raising and educating their children is their job.
Our job is to provide a product. Some might say a seductive, addictive product…
ARE WE BIG ANIMATION?
TV has often been blamed for producing a generation of obese, socially-misfit couch potatoes with attention deficit disorder and an inability to relate to real people…but enough about animation writers.
This is about the children and the money we make writing for them.
Is animation the Big Tobacco of television programming? The more eyes on screens and the more brand loyalty generated for spin-off merchandise, the higher the profits for networks and production companies. Which leads to more work for us, the animation writers and story editors.
By making our scripts as entertaining as we possibly can, are we part of a system designed to hook viewers at an early age, leading to a lifelong dependence on the medium? After all, they do call it viewing habits.
Well, whether the general public realizes it or not, writers, story editors, producers and network execs all work towards keeping their kids’ shows age-appropriate, with positive messages about friendship and cooperation, self-confidence and persistence, consequences for one’s actions and all that good stuff. And animation has had a long association with educational programming, teaching kids about the world around them and helping them with literacy and numeracy and problem-solving skills.
Lots of things in life are bad for you if consumed in large amounts…booze, Facebook, Chocolate Cheerios…and TV is no different. It’s up to parents, caregivers and teachers to help kids learn to moderate their consumption of, well, everything.
But I’m willing to do my part. So hey kids, turn off that TV and go run around outside for a while. Just not when my episode is on.
In What Happened To My Script? – Part One, we discussed the reasons why your script was changed between your last draft and the finished episode, with an emphasis on why those changes were because of stuff that you did.
Not anyone else — You.
Now comes the fun part where we turn the tables and examine the reasons why your script was changed that have to do with some other animal, vegetable, or mineral.
Meaning it’s someone else’s fault. They’re the one who ‘messed it up’… or made it awards-worthy, although you would never admit that.
The reasons why a script changes after the original writer has moved on has everything to do what goes on behind the animated curtain. Specifically, the later production stages. Many animation writers have no idea what goes on after they hit ‘send’. But they should, because it would help them become better writers and deliver more consistently ‘animate-able’ scripts. But until productions begin putting a “Welcome Writers!” sign up on the door for these later stages, how else are you going to learn why your sh%$ got changed?
(For more info on the Production Process, check out You Are Never Writing Alone -learning the animation process and The Animation Production Process, Part 2 – The Visual Stream – Editor)
Like their counterpart productions in the live-action world, animation productions are big collaborative efforts. Like a Final Draft baton being passed from hand to hand, your script travels through many different departments before it reaches the TV screen, and the reasons for changing your words range from the logical and budgetary, to the arbitrary and ego-driven.
The number of people who poke, prod, fondle, slap, or even stab your script to death is a long one. So perhaps it’s best to just list those individuals first, then explain the reasons why they changed your script.
The reasons they changed my script because of THEM:
● The Head Writer
Whether they go by that designation, or by Executive Producer, or Story Editor (the most common), the Head Writer of the animated series you’re writing for will often edit your script at every draft stage. This is preferable to the alternative where they only edit it after you’re done your Polish, for the main reason that you as the episode’s writer, get a unique glimpse into their creative mind by reading their revisions along the way. Reading their edited passes (always recommended) allows you to see what they like or don’t like about your writing, and helps you learn to write better for them.
NOTE: This is a very different thing than helping you learn to become a better writer. You will not always agree with the liberties the Head Writer took with your script. Many times you’ll think what they did suck ass. But in the greater employer/employee universe, never forget that you’re the subordinate being hired to give them what they want. Save your artistic expression for your own projects, and give them what they want already.
The alternative to a Story Editor editing your script at every stage, is when they just relay notes from the broadcaster, or whoever has a say in the script, directly to you, the writer, to implement. Only when you’re done your last draft in this scenario does the Story Editor do any rewriting themselves. From a notes perspective, all the bigger problems should have been ironed out by this stage, so anything from this point on is most likely the Story Editor getting their own creative rocks off, or juggling last-minute notes to get the damn thing out of their hands forever. Their draft can be anything from a light polish to a complete rewrite depending on their creative temperament.
● The Animation Director
This creative head always has their own vision for the series, and for your script. It’s what they’re paid to have. So in terms of what we will see on screen, the artistic buck stops at them. And in that capacity, the Director will put their stamp on your episode in whatever way they see fit. This stamp could include rewriting the odd line of dialogue, entire scenes, or in rare cases, the entire script.
Good Directors will only do what they need to enhance your script because the bigger story demands should have already been addressed by the Story Editor. This leaves the Director to focus solely on making the show look great and play out well dramatically. Not-so-good Directors believe that any script that wasn’t written by themselves sucks and will change every word that either you or the Story Editor wrote. Because they can.
Like it or not, your script will always be filtered through a Director’s sensibility. When your vision jives with theirs, the end result is magic, and the show becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. When your vision doesn’t merge with the Director’s, it’s usually a disaster in the making. Not to mention a heartbreaking experience for the writer who spent endless hours crafting a script that got moulded into some other beast for broadcast.
● The Producer
Somebody has to keep the budget and schedule of an animated production in line. If your script is a negative influence on either of those aspects, rest assured that the Producer will tag it with a bullseye. You included a new location in your script? The Producer has to pay an artist to draw it. You introduced a new character who only says two lines? The Producer has to pay an actor to read those two lines (FYI – you’d do well to research how ACTRA voice actors get paid. Word count matters. In some cases, losing one word from one line can save the production hundreds of dollars).
Unlike Directors and Story Editors, Producers aren’t always creative. Nor do they have to be. Some are only paid to handle cheques and calendars. In the live-action series world (specifically the U.S.), they’d be called ‘Non-Writing Producers,’ who deal only with logistics. This species of Producer generally leaves writers alone as long as they don’t mess with their budget or schedule.
Other Producers however, integrate themselves into the creative process in ways which overlap with all the other creative heads: the Writer, Story Editor, and Director. They give notes on your script. Attend voice records. Make cuts in edit sessions. In the animation world, there is no hard and fast rule for what a Producer does or doesn’t do within the creative spectrum. It’s different with every Producer on every series. And much like the Writer’s relationship with the Director, if the Producer is in sync with you creatively, the show will work fine. If not, expect to feel pain in all your creative places.
Additionally, it’s important to note that the Producer is the individual who represents the commercial and creative interests of the Production Company making the series you’re writing on. Your relationship working with this Producer could determine whether or not you’ll have a long, fruitful relationship with that production company, or never work for them again. Either of which could be a blessing or a curse.
● The Network Executive
This person wields a huge amount of power over your script. A single, dismissive comment from them could kill your episode at any stage. But like everyone else involved in the production, they want it to be as good as it can be. Their notes on your script can run the gamut from being constructive to infuriating.
When it comes to your script, the other creative heads on the production generally handle anything that’s too serious coming from the Network Executive. So when you receive the Executive’s notes, they’ve usually been edited down to the more manageable stuff. The more experienced you get, you’ll more likely you’ll get to receive all their notes (whoopee!). Be aware that the more you get to know Network Executives on a personal level, and the more they get to know you, the more receptive they will be to your writing… and to forgiving any choices you make that they don’t like. Meaning they’ll just ask for changes in the next draft… and not necessarily demand that you get fired immediately.
So those are the main culprits who are responsible for changing your script after you’re done writing it. But there are also some specific reasons that are worth mentioning as well. Specifics that will outlined in a rousing Part Three cliffhanger to this blog entry.
Stay tuned for What Happened To My Script – Part Three!
A 24-year-old reporter recently quit his job as a bureau chief for a Canadian TV network. In his blog, he wrote a lengthy post to tell his friends, family, and followers exactly why he was fed up with the broadcast news industry.
His beefs included (a) his network owned the copyright on his work product (b) as a reporter, he wasn’t allowed to state his personal opinion on issues (c) the networks think if their news reporters don’t look like Ken or Barbie, they’ll lose viewers (d) the Prince William and Kate tour of Canada got way too much media coverage.
My first thought was…he’s 24, and he was a already a bureau chief? Impressive! I’ve got Super-VHS tapes older than this guy!
My next thought was…maybe he should’ve researched the current climate of his chosen field before he got into it. If you can’t take the cold, get off the rink!
My final thought was…won’t every potential employer be able to read his Jerry Maguire-like manifesto online for years to come…and judge him for better or for worse on his public declaration of how much his job sucked?
Another disgruntled employee, this time of an upscale grocery chain, emailed his letter of resignation to everyone in his company. In it, he slagged over his supervisors and co-workers in a vitriolic and possibly libelous way. The email got posted online and went viral.
People seem to get a vicarious thrill out of these “I quit and f*** you” stories – maybe because a lot of people wish they could afford to quit their own soul-sucking job and would love to expose their horrible bosses to the derision of the whole wide world web.
But thanks to the archival power of the internet, the flames from the bridges someone e-burns today may be blazing brightly for the rest of their career. People might want to think twice before they click on that incendiary “send” or “post” button.
As a professional animation writer, you need to be especially careful about what words you put out into the public forum. As tempting as it may be to gripe openly about a hellish gig that’s driving you nuts, writing negative things about a client can actually violate the terms of your contract.
Re-read that non-disclosure clause. It limits you to brief “non-derogatory” comments about the show you’re working on – the kind of newsy tidbits you’d slip into a bio or post on your blog. Signing a contract means you agree not to publicize anything else about the production: what’s in the series bible, the story lines, your drafts, the terms of your contract, any of those annoying notes you’re being given…
And it’s not just the comments you deliberately post to the public that you have to watch. These days, you need to be discreet in your private communications as well. When every email, text message, tweet, blog or social media posting can be copied and forwarded by accident or on purpose, no form of digital communication is 100% private.
So limit any work-related rants to the verbal kind, and deliver them only to your partner, your agent, your therapist, your bartender, or your friends – where the hearsay rule applies. Anything else could be professional spewicide.
Bugs and animation have long enjoyed an insectuous relationship. And why not? Bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours; they can walk, crawl, wriggle, hop and fly. That gives animators a lot to, er, draw on.
Bugs come with a built-in hero/villain dynamic that we can tap into for character and story. Bugs instinctively arouse our sympathies or fears; they can be cute and vulnerable or scary and dangerous. They pollinate our plants and make us honey; or they can suck our blood or kill us with a venomous sting.
That’s not what bugs me.
What does bug me? Inaccurate bug anatomy. Specifically: number of legs.
Take a look at Jiminy Cricket, one of the first animated insects to hop onto the big screen. The first thing you notice about him, other than that he’s quite a snappy dresser, is that he has two arms and two legs. Total number of appendages: four. That’s TWO less than his real-life cricket counterpart.
This bugs me.
I don’t know why exactly. Intellectually, I get that it’s easier to animate four limbs than six. Similarly, hands are often simplified in animation: four digits (three fingers and a thumb) rather than five. When it comes to digits or legs, four of anything in a design is enough to give the impression of “lots.”
I had hoped that computer-assisted animation would usher in a glorious anatomically-correct era of insect animation. In 1998, two rival movies with CGI insect characters were released: Antz (Dreamworks) and A Bug’s Life (Pixar/Disney). To my amazement, the ants in Antz actually had six legs! To my disappointment, the ants in A Bug’s Life had four. To their credit, their grasshopper villains had six. The caterpillar had even more.
Canadian productions have gone either way when it comes to insect limb count in bug-based animated series.
In Roboroach (Portfolio Entertainment/Helix Animation) Rube the cockroach has six legs but his brother Reg has four.
In Erky Perky (CCI Entertainment/Ambience Entertainment) both bugs have four limbs.
In Maya the Bee (developed by Thunderbird Films and Studio 100) the bees have four limbs, but Flip the Grasshopper has six.
Six-leggedness seems to be used when animators want to give emphasize the “bugginess” of a character for comic or scary effect. When characters have four limbs, they more closely mimic the human behaviour the animators are sending up by anthropomorphizing bugs.
Let’s face it. When a character sings, dances, moralizes, and wears a three-piece suit, gloves and a top hat, and carries an umbrella, he’s not really an insect. He’s just a little person who just happens to have a green exoskeleton!
And that’s the important thing to keep in mind when it comes to writing for non-human characters. Talking insects (or animals or robots for that matter) stand in for humans. Their characters need to be just as consistent, their actions as well-motivated, their reactions as believable as if they were actual people.
What does set insect characters apart is any non-human capabilities they might have: flight, strength, flexibility, multitasking, the ability to cling to the sides and undersides of objects, or to bounce back from being squashed or swatted with no lasting physical damage. A canny animation writer will exploit the visual possibilities to the fullest.
And one last thing that bugs me about bugs in animation…inaccurate portrayal of gender roles in insect communities! In nature, it’s the females who do all the work in beehives and ant colonies. The male drones just hang out and mate with the queen. Of course, if you’re writing for a children’s series, that’s a scenario that’s not going to, er, fly.
It’s time to dip into the digital mailbag for more reader questions here at Canimation.
We recently received a request for info on writing with a partner, balancing a creative and business partnership and collaboration in general.
Here are some basics to keep in mind for a successful team-up.
First question. What types of things need to be discussed going into a writing partnership?
Trust and respect are key.
Knowing you respect the other person’s ability and ideas and they respect yours is the first unbreakable rule. If you find your ideas being dismissed all the time without a real discussion then that’s bad sign. If you think the other person’s ideas are stupid then you will probably make for a very bad partner.
It also helps to know what you both want out of it.
In my partnership, even when we are struggling, I know we are both working toward the same goal (sometimes from different sides of the problem). So our arguments are always about the work, not about each other. If a personal issue comes up, we have to quickly separate it out from the work and deal with it so it doesn’t get in our way.
You may also have to discuss how you like to work. Different duos write different ways. Some alternate scenes and trade up, some write in the same room, some do the first pass solo then hand it off. You may find that you start out working one way together but over time it switches as you grow more comfortable as a team.
Most importantly, you need to decide if you can maintain a friendship and work together. If one of you is precious about taking notes, combative or worse, never speaks up for their ideas and lets resentment fester, then the partnership is doomed to fiery, ugly death.
Are there some standard agreements available to help clarify the business part of a writing relationship?
Nope. Agreements vary from team to team. I don’t know of any writing teams who started out with a contract. Though eventually, you may have to work out an agreement as to who deals with the creative and where the money goes if one of you passes away or quits mid-stream. My partner and I don’t do anything we haven’t decided on together. Sometimes one convinces the other, sometimes the one with the most passion rules, and sometimes the most tired one simply caves!
What advantages/pitfalls have you experienced (or witnessed) in writing partnerships in Canada?
Advantages to Writing With a Partner
Number one is the idea well you draw inspiration from is magically doubled. When confronted with a blank page or a challenge we have two brains to chip away at it instead of one. So I guess it basically lowers that inevitable fear of failure! As long as you have something to show, even if it feels uninspired or still has problems, your partner can usually see something there and build on it. This eliminates (or at least, diminishes) that fear of failure that cripples writers at times. You are no longer alone. It will be okay.
Partnership also opens your writing up to true surprise and improvisation. Sometimes you toss out a silly or outrageous idea you’d normally skip and your partner latches onto it and cries, “That’s brilliant!”. Suddenly you are off on a new direction instead of your default choices.
Another plus? You suddenly find yourself creating something that feels more thought out and fuller than something you do on your own, simply because there is more than one point of view and set of experiences weighing in. This especially helps when writing stories with multiple character voices and viewpoints. Suddenly, the characters don’t all sound like you.
You can work faster and accomplish more with a partner. As Cheryl Binning said in her article, “In This Together: Screenwriting Partnerships” (Canadian Screenwriter, Spring 2010, vol. 12, no. 2) “On a practical level, writing teams typically work faster, share the workload, divide responsibilities, and, best of all, can even take vacation knowing the other will be there is broadcaster notes suddenly arrive in the middle of their trip.”
Having a partner also helps overcome the ever-present desire to distract yourself or put off working. If I promised a first draft to my partner by 6 pm, I damn well better deliver, no matter how interesting I find that graph about whether Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton is more likely to be taken in the rapture.
Finally, it’s much, much easier to deal with script notes and business issues with two heads. We can see the separate sides to an issue or problem better. And if something pisses us off, we can vent to each other and inevitably the calmest one takes the lead on the diplomatic work.
Disadvantages to Writing With a Partner
When the two writers in a team have differing expectations or work ethics, problems arise. The one doing more work will resent it while the lazy one may feel they are contributing all the inspiration (That by the way, is never true).
Who gets control of the ideas or scripts when the split happens? If it’s amicable, then likely you will be able to negotiate the split. If you still hate each other, you will likely have to abandon it all and start over!
The perils are great but the rewards are many. Choose your partner wisely and you will have a true ally and creative inspiration.
Now get writing. Both of you.
Whether it’s your first produced animation credit, or one of hundreds you’ve created over the years as a professional animation writer, there is one emotion you’re likely to experience when you sit down to watch the finished product on television — bafflement.
What happened to my script?!!!
The finished episode bears little resemblance to the action-packed, true-to-character masterpiece you toiled through draft after draft to finish. Panic sets in as you wonder why the Head Writer — the Story Editor, in the animation world — changed it so drastically.
The moment you delivered your final Polish Draft, did the Story Editor just decide that you sucked and rewrote every word as a result? The final episode is so different from the script you delivered, a fleeting thought crosses your mind… maybe you should ask to have your name removed. Because clearly it’s not your work… right?
Before you jam your head in the paper shredder out of despair, there are some important things you should know about the animation process that can greatly affect your script. Some of which a writer might have no idea about because the reasons for the changes occur long after the writer finishes their job. Reasons that often have nothing to do with the quality of work you delivered.
We’ll get to those reasons later. Right now, we’re going to gaze in the magic mirror and examine the reasons that are entirely because of you. Because let’s face it, we’d be deceiving ourselves if we thought our scripts were never changed because of anything we did. Part of our job as professionals, is to avoid repeating our mistakes so we can become better, more reliable wordsmiths. So on that note, here a few of the reasons (some of which are very obvious) as to why your script was changed that have everything to do with you:
Reasons they changed my script because of ME:
● You’re new to animation writing, or to that particular series. People will generally cut you a bit of slack on this one, because while your best effort is always expected, no one expects a home run from you in your first appearance at the plate. Really “getting” a show takes time. There’s always a learning curve in becoming familiar with the show’s characters and its style. Even seasoned veterans get rewritten the first script or two they write for a series. The more you write on a program, the more you’ll become an ‘expert’ on the universe of that series, and the less you will get rewritten by the Story Editor on future scripts.
● You didn’t adhere to the formula for that series. For example, you gave a half-page soliloquy to a character who usually speaks one sentence. Or you decided to add a narrator where none existed before. Or your episode became action-heavy in place of the usual comedy. Or you threw in every character the show’s ever used into one episode where normally you only have a handful of characters. All of which make the show feel like some other series. This is not a good thing.
● You ignored the show’s format or ignored the notes. If this is the case, visit a confessional ASAP because you’ve committed a monstrous sin. You delivered a 20 page script where the standard length is 14. Or the Story Editor “suggested” (read: DO IT NOW!) that you lose the airborne battle sequence, but instead, you simply moved it to another page, or made the scene longer because you think your idea’s better. While it may in fact be better, until you sell your own series or become a highly paid showrunner and the creative buck stops at you, don’t get high and mighty with your ideas. Ignoring a request from your senior writer is a sure fire way to never get work from them again. Your job is to make their life easier, and the better you get at delivering a script they don’t have to edit much, the better your chances are of getting hired by them later.
Okay, so you’ve taken your tongue-lashing and heard the reasons why it was your fault your script got changed. But what about the other changes that were made to it? Weird changes like those random cuts, or the arbitrary substitutions? Why did they drop an entire action beat at the end? Or excise a character completely? You would have cut that character yourself if only they’d asked you. Why did they do it after the fact?
As an animation writer who’s been privileged enough to be involved in the post-writing production process, I can tell you that many things occur later on that can cause big changes to your script that have nothing to do with you. In our next instalment of “What Happened To My Script,” we’ll tell you what they are.